January 2018 First Chapter of a novel


Writing a novel is a very different exercise to writing a long or medium-length short story.

Out of the eight submissions only one synopsis (Whispering Secrets) mentions a sub-plot. Apart from the obvious factors of good writing, detailed characterisation and an active plot, it is the sub-plot(s) that give depth to a novel. Another crucial factor in novel building is that of the Theme(s). What theme does your novel illustrate or explore? Some of the entries briefly hinted at their Theme, but not all of them.

Despite the Competition Criteria regarding length, the entries ranged from a short entry (1265 words) to overlong (2972 words). Part of the challenge of a Competition is the skill and effort required to hit the target length criteria, to within 100 words either over/under the target.

Another shortcoming was the omission in three entries of the synopsis. If the rules ask for a synopsis, you should provide one. Failing to do so very definitely jeopardises your chances of winning! In fact, in some writing competitions failure to abide by the rules means immediate disqualification. In the case of your SAWC competition I was advised:

  1. No synopsis: must be penalised; a synopsis is clearly a requirement in the brief. The entry will still be adjudicated (not disqualified) but should not be considered for the top three.
  2. Word count: the 2500-word maximum (excluding title and pseudonym) is an absolute requirement, and should be penalised. Some judges only adjudicate up to the 2500-word mark, but that’s a bit petty, in my opinion. The discipline of containing the writing within that limit is an important criterion, and will usually exclude the story from the prize-winning entries. This may form part of your adjudication. 

Although not as critical, under-using the allocated word count usually diminishes the opportunity for the writer to develop character and setting, so will usually also be penalised. Again, your adjudication may mention this missed opportunity to develop the writer’s themes.

We tend not to disqualify outright, as I’m sure you will agree. 

I want to specifically mention the entry ‘The Beginning’. Most unfortunately, I could not include the story in the Top Three, due to brevity and lack of a synopsis.

On the topic of the Synopses: they varied wildly in length – from ultra short to over-long. Possibly your Club needs some guidelines in this regard. Ideally a synopsis should give a succinct outline of your novel. ‘Whispering Secrets’ synopsis hit the mark.

I read the chapter first, and only then the synopsis. This enabled me to see how/if the chapter related to the synopsis.

In arriving at my decision I considered the following five categories:

Writing quality, Originality, Character development, Plot development, Overall enjoyment (from the reader’s perspective).

I have written a commentary after each entry. My remarks are intended as constructive criticism. Please read them in this spirit!


First Place:                    The Marble Jar, by Angelique Pacheco

Second Place:              Whispering Secrets, by Helena Higgins

The Third Place would have been awarded to A Brighter Ray by Patrick Coyne, were it not for the excessive length of 2972 words. My only other option for Third Place was The Beginning by Lourens Durand, but again, due to its extreme brevity of 1265 words and lack of a synopsis, I could not consider it. The remaining entries did not warrant third placement.

Congratulations to the Winners, and encouragement to the unplaced writers.

The winning entries offered strong, active plots with vivid characters and provided me with entertainment. Isn’t that why we are writing ? To entertain our readers?

Please continue writing. I wish you success with your endeavours – and would remind you that there is no substitute for hard work linked to perseverance.

The Committee noted that there was a discrepancy between the competition requirements for January (First Chapter of a Novel) published on the website, and those requirements published in the newsletter and elsewhere. Specifically, there was a difference between the word count requirement (2500/3000 words), and the stipulation that a synopsis for the rest of the novel must be provided.
In the interests of those who entered the competition, both of these requirements have been eased, and the judge’s recommendation contained in her report has been accepted.
Patrick Coyne has been awarded Third Place, and Lourens Durand has been awarded a Highly Commended for his entry.

The Committee regrets any confusion, and will be examining SAWC practices to prevent a future occurrence.